May 22, 2023

Efforts are underway to protect snakes, frogs in the Gila area

US Fish and Wildlife Service

Chiricahua leopard frog

When the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy sets up booths and tables to educate people about their work, a noticeable trend appears: the children are excited to hold the snakes but the adults are concerned or afraid.

“People aren’t born with a fear of snakes, typically,” ARC Conservation Program Coordinator José Garrido said in an interview with NM Political Report.

He said trying to get a 30-year-old to hold a snake is ten times harder than convincing a child to hold one.

ARC spokesperson Stephanie Haan-Amato said this fear of reptiles or amphibians can have real-world consequences for species. She said research looking at the Endangered Species Act shows that a smaller percentage of imperiled reptiles and amphibians are listed compared to other types of vertebrate animals.

This comes as amphibians are declining at a rate of about four percent annually in the country. A fifth of the world’s reptiles and more than 40 percent of the amphibians are in danger of extinction, according to the conservancy.

This year marks 50 years since President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act. ARC Executive Director JJ Apodaca said the Endangered Species Act allowed for species to continue existing.

“In my view, it’s the last ditch effort to save some of these things that are right on the brink of extinction,” he said.

Today, there are more than 1,300 species listed as either threatened or endangered. On Friday, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it will use $62.5 million of funding from the Inflation Reduction Act on recovery efforts for endangered species.

“The Endangered Species Act is the safe house, it’s the structure that helps stop that extinction,” Apodaca said. “But if we ever want to recover these ecosystems and the species, then we, as a conservation community and concerned citizens, have to also join in and do our part, to restore those ecosystems and to bring the species back. It’s sort of the view that you can’t change the world if all you have is a hammer, right. And that’s what the ESA is, a hammer. It’s a tool to try to stop the loss of the species by using punishment. And so we try to build programs and structures that bring ecosystems and species back using incentives and our own efforts.”

ARC recently began efforts to protect and recover three species in the Gila region of New Mexico and Arizona. Apodaca said ARC’s program in New Mexico and Arizona is really just kicking off this year.

He said the Gila region is a hotspot for biodiversity and a hotspot for endangered or threatened biodiversity.

The three species the team is focusing on in the Gila include the Chiricahua leopard frog, the narrow-headed gartersnake and the northern Mexican gartersnake. All three are listed as threatened.

ARC teams up with federal, state and local agencies to try to protect these species.

In the Gila region, there’s a mixture of land ownership that includes national forest, wilderness, some Bureau of Land Management lands and private property.

“The streams, they don’t know boundaries. They don’t know when they cross the Forest Service and the private land,” Garrido said.

He said sometimes a bullfrog population relies on habitat on private land. The invasive bullfrogs are one of the threats that the two snakes and the threatened leopard frog all face.

“No matter how much work you do on the Forest Service trying to get rid of it, if they have a breeding pond on private land, they’re just going to keep coming back in,” Garrido said.

He said partnerships are important to developing a strategic vision that can be communicated and to take a targeted approach at helping the species.

The Chiricahua leopard frog recovery efforts include egg collection and rearing of frogs in captivity. Organizations in the Gila region have released thousands of frogs into the wild, many of which are raised at Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch.

“The problem is that no matter how many you put back into the environment, unless the habitat is restored, unless they have the things to thrive, then it’s gonna keep declining,” Garido said.

The frog faces various threats, he said. Those include ponds drying up and invasive species like bullfrogs and crayfish as well as non-native sport fish.

Garrido said that the frog has come to rely a lot on man-made water sources such as stock tanks and cattle ponds. He said those sources “are not managed like a native ecosystem” and come with their own set of challenges.

While the frogs may seek ponds and stock tanks, the two species of garter snakes prefer streams.

Portions of the waterways that historically flowed are now drying up in part due to diversions.

Fires like the Black Fire that burned in the Gila region last year can also harm the snakes.

“When you have fire come through, all the silt that comes after that fire really clogs up the streams that can cause huge erosion problems,” Garrido said.

While cattle ranching has provided some new water sources that help the leopard frogs, the cattle also change the water quality in the streams and cause bank erosion that impacts the snakes.

Garrido said the snakes are in severe decline across their historic range.

Unlike the frogs, captive rearing of snakes to be released onto the range is not an easy task. Garrido said ARC is trying to map where the threats to the snakes occur and how severe they are.

As the climate changes, Apodaca said the hydrology also changes and this can impact native species. These changes can include worsening drought or more frequent flash floods.

On top of climate change, humans have altered the rivers and streams.

“Because we’ve changed the river system so much, the system is not as prepared to deal with long term drought and…heavy amounts of rain and a short period of time,” Apodaca said So it all sort of accumulates together and in this larger problem that’s been caused by really changing the entire landscape.”